In the future, Manhattan drowns. Robots claim they worship God. Latin America unites under a single government. Teenagers ditch their parental surveillance devices to hang out and hook up in urban “white spots,” which augmented reality has yet to penetrate. Those with wealth live forever, while those without it scrounge for philanthropic genetic assistance to compete with scions of the everlasting.
Such is the future, or the many futures, imagined by the contributors to The New York Times’ “Op-Eds From the Future” project, launched last May. Writers with backgrounds ranging from science fiction and philosophy to futurology and fantasy have been gracing the opinion pages of The Times once a week or so for the past three months, bearing bleak, tragic, bizarre and entirely fictional news from behind the future’s opaque curtain. The purpose of publishing these articles, per the editor’s note prefacing each, is to “illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow.” Though the fledgling form is effective in helping readers imagine future worlds that may arrive too quickly to anticipate or too slowly to detect, it raises urgent questions of its own about the limits of opinion journalism.
The evocative capacity of this genre stems from its ability to imagine novel challenges that feel familiar. Speculative fiction writer Brooke Bolander centers her piece, “Who Should Live in Flooded Old New York?”, on the fictional Albert Turner, a father who turns to illegally scavenging for valuables in the waterlogged boroughs of New York in order to feed his family. Bolander’s op-ed speaks to more than one anxiety of our own uneasy times: not only the scientifically-justified dismay provoked by ever-encroaching tides, but the equally justified fear that those tides will crash on the heads of the underserved. Knowing of the devastation wrought by hurricanes such as Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Maria, and of the ways in which those storms were most horrific and ruinous for the poor, Bolander imbues her “Old New York,” with a recognizable, though abhorrent, social calculus. Those with means flee the flooded city, and all the places that are not New York allow it to become a “martyr, a symbolic bumper sticker for all we’ve lost and continue to lose to the rising tides.” In that calculus, the city’s fortuneless lose out. Every time.
I would wager that Bolander’s piece — poignant and disturbing, but well-grounded in fact — is one of the most successful speculative op-eds The Times has published thus far. Science fiction author Hannu Rajaniemi’s work, “Keep Your Augmented Reality. Give Me a Secret Garden,” is another strong contender. The piece is written from the perspective of Mary Lennox, a teenage girl who shares the name of the protagonist of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel “The Secret Garden.” In the op-ed, Lennox leads a grassroots movement of young people who deliberately take off their “iGlasses,” devices that screen their experiences through layers of augmented reality and close parental supervision. Seeing the world as it truly is, Lennox and her followers seek out abandoned and decrepit locales, places that have been left behind by the advent of AR and thus, for many people, have ceased to exist. In those “secret gardens,” they play music; they make art; they grow flowers; they have sex.
We see in Lennox’s story not only the fiery spirit that fuels young activists like climate agitator Greta Thunberg today, but the overprotective parenting impulse to which late millennials’ fraught relationship with the internet may drive us. It’s only natural that we would want to protect our children from identity theft, online predation, alt-right radicalization and the many other threats posed by our hyperconnected existence. When combined with the reality-altering power of AR, however, that impulse to protect morphs into an urge to censor.
Not all the contributors are as successful as Bolander and Rajaniemi. Artist and author Susan Schneider’s reflection on the philosophical implications of consciousness-altering microchips, though intellectually fascinating, lacks sufficient urgency. More than four thousand Swedes have already been tagged with microchips that serve as house keys, train tickets, and likely soon, a form of payment. Neuralink, an Elon Musk start-up, is researching ways for microchips to interface with human brains. The age of microchipping ourselves is surely on the horizon, and yet, Schneider’s op-ed unspools with minimal tension. The question Schneider asks in the title—“Should You Add a Microchip to Your Brain?”—loses its weight as a personal dilemma and becomes merely a chance for her to ponder the nature of consciousness and the self. Her point is that we should “appreciate the philosophical issues lying beneath the algorithms” of neural microchips, but Schneider reflects little on issues such as medical surveillance, the privacy of inner thought and discrimination against neurodivergent people that the topic of microchips raises.
Science fiction and fantasy writer Fran Wilde’s op-ed similarly falls short. She imbues her argument against buying toy bioprinters for kids with wonderful detail (printed unicorns and harpies abound in her imagined future). But her world was so unreal that I was left with the impression that bioprinting is mere fantasy, not an urgent ethical problem requiring action — or even introspection— from the reader.
Aside from the occasionally disappointing execution of the form, I also fear that the speculative op-ed is a genre ripe for misuse. When backed with vivid writing, sound reasoning and verifiable facts, an op-ed from the future can express the writer’s position and encourage action from the reader in a way an op-ed based in the present cannot. In the latter, the writer is Cassandra, and the reader is their dubious audience whom they attempt to persuade. In the former, the writer attempts to beam their prophetic vision directly into the reader’s brain.
When backed with only rhetoric and fictionalized accounts, this new form may evolve into something more sinister. It is all too easy to imagine an op-ed from a false future that appeals to racist and nativist currents in American culture. How long before Breitbart publishes an op-ed from a future with decriminalized borders, replete with unsubstantiated predictions of rising violent crime? Granted, Breitbart may publish a piece with such an argument anyway. But the form of the speculative op-ed would lend the argument the sheen of prophecy, making it more difficult to detect and challenge. How does one argue against fiction?
Even when discussing a topic such as climate change, where the speculative op-ed shines, writers may appropriate the form in bad faith. It could be used to describe a future in which ambitious programs to combat rising temperatures are budget busting and ineffective — or one in which the climate crisis rights itself without human intervention, entrenching the long-debunked beliefs of many on the right who see climate change as a harmless natural phenomenon.
It is exciting to see the public imaginary blossom on the pages of our country’s paper of record. The opinion section is no longer a reactionary arena; it has become appropriately proactive in its attempts to address future challenges. The speculative op-ed can surely be a force for good — but only as good as the intentions and execution of its writers.